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The Mills College Children’s School as Urban Teacher Preparation: The Antithesis to Teach for America | Sara Sutherland

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Sara Sutherland, Head teacher at the Mills College Children's School

Sara Sutherland, Head teacher at the Mills College Children’s School

Teach for America is a program rife with good intentions: students in inner city schools will have the benefit of fresh blood and new perspectives in their classrooms, beleaguered schools will have the gift of idealistic new staff, the young TFA participants will be exposed to the realities of urban inner-city schools, which will hopefully broaden their perspectives. These are well-intended goals, and there have certainly been positive outcomes. I have several friends who are TFA graduates, and they speak of the horizon-expanding experience that Teach for America offered them, and how the program offered them a landing place when they were at an impasse in their young lives. Did any of these friends go on to teach beyond Teach for America? Not one.

Despite the intentions to improve the lives of students in urban schools, it would seem that the primary beneficiaries of Teach for America are the program participants. The students are exposed to yet another teacher that will leave them, if not due to burnout, then due to a planned departure, when, do-gooder vacation over, their teacher moves on to the next step in their “real “ lives.

What do we want for students in urban schools? I think we want what we want for all children: teachers who are devoted to children and the craft of teaching, who are committed to making this practice their “real” lives. It seems to me that a critical component for success for these teachers is adequately preparing them to be thoughtful practitioners in spite of and because of the very reality of the schools and lives of the children they serve.

I am a Head Teacher at an independent private laboratory school committed to a lens of social justice and preparing thoughtful teachers. I oversee a classroom of children with a staff 100% comprised of students preparing to become teachers, special education professionals, and Child Life practitioners. My top priority is providing safe, thoughtful early education and care to my young students – but a VERY close second is providing a laboratory for learning for my adult students to prepare them for thoughtful practice, wherever their careers will take them.

The Children’s School, my professional home for the past eight years, at times receives criticism for not being “real” enough for student teachers aiming to teach in urban settings. The teacher: child ratios in our classroom are excellent, even if most of the teachers are students themselves, here to learn. We have the luxury and the challenge of partnering with the School of Education on a college campus, and are tasked with ensuring our teaching of all constituencies is research-based and context-appropriate. We have something that many schools are not fortunate enough to have: time. Each day we can debrief with our student teachers to discuss the daily experience, provide support, offer feedback, assist in formulating questions, and model reflection. Perhaps this luxury is the other side of the “real world” coin flipped nonchalantly by speed teacher education programs. However, I would argue that our model of teacher education provides an immersive context for teachers learning to be reflective practitioners. As a Head Teacher, I am incredibly intentional of ensuring that my students be exposed to and allowed to practice reflective teaching so they can develop highly personalized modes of reflection and resilience – so that these can be taken with them as part of their bag of teaching tricks into settings that do not – cannot – offer this luxury of time.

The Urban Teaching Education Consortium recently published a thought-provoking position paper in the Washington Post that critiques the speed teacher-preparation programs and posits a set of recommendations for preparing teachers for urban settings. I was struck – and professionally inspired — by how many of their recommendations for urban teacher preparation we are addressing in our practicum setting for teachers. I am gratified to teach in an environment that places such emphasis in preparing teachers to be deeply thoughtful; that encourages them to know their students and themselves and use this knowledge to create learning communities; that encourages novice teachers to question the why’s of teaching mandates; that models inquiry as a stance. It is gratifying to read the Consortium’s recommendations and know that my work in my context is serving children in more “typical” urban schools through the teachers I am helping to prepare.


Sara Sutherland, MA, is an alumna of the Masters in Education program at Mills. She has been a Head Teacher in the preschool program at the Children’s School since 2007.

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October 20, 2014 at 10:19 am

Transitioning to School: How Successful Beginnings Create a Sense of Positive School Identity | Sara Sutherland

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“Transitions form a life-long matrix of human life through which all children and adults move gradually from known into unknown realms of experience,”  -Nancy Balaban, 2011.

The new school year is well underway at Mills College Children’s School. Children and families are learning routines and the children and teachers are getting to know one another. Our teaching teams, comprised of Children’s School Head Teachers and student teachers from the School of Education, are delving daily into the rich and challenging work of teaching: observing the children’s play and thinking; building relationships with families and planning thoughtful, engaging curriculum to provoke exploration. Head Teachers hold fast to our commitment to thoughtful, relationship-based care and using inquiry as a stance.

Infant/Toddler Head Teacher, Seferina Rivera at snack time

Infant/Toddler Head Teacher, Seferina Rivera at snack time

One of the primary tenets of the Head Teachers’ work is to continually consider the importance of successful transitions. The beginning of school transition is not simply how the school year begins, it is part of developing a life-long sense of self as a person who can transition—who can see themselves outside their families as a person who is competent and confident. How do the Head Teachers support all members of the community — children, families, and student teachers -­- in this transition?  The Infant-Toddler and Kindergarten classrooms are often the first entry points to school for children and can be pivotal transitions for the whole family. Seferina Rivera and Jenny Bond, Head Teachers in these programs, share some thoughts below.

Seferina Rivera is beginning her eleventh year as a Head Teacher in the Infant-Toddler program.  For most children and families, the Infant-Toddler room is their first experience of care outside of the home. As they think about building classroom community, Seferina and afternoon Head Teacher, Virginia McKone, find themselves focusing on the individuals in the classroom. For children and families, the Infant-Toddler Program offers many opportunities to become more familiar with one another and the classroom setting; families are invited to visit the classroom during the summer, teachers visit the children at home and classroom play dates are encouraged prior to the start of school.  “These repeated visits offer families a chance to see their child as part of the group” Seferina shared, “and often raise questions about how their child’s individual needs will be met in this setting.” This transition is about the whole family, as the child experiences being a member of a new setting, and the family learns about their child in the context of a group. Individual details about each child’s cultural caregiving preferences from many conversations and observations are recorded and shared with the student teachers, serving to create deeper understanding in both constituencies. For both families and student teachers, the Head Teachers encourage open dialogue as they support the children in the process of transitioning from home to school-based care.

Mills College's laboratory school's Kindergarten class

Head Teacher, Jenny Bond with the Children’s School’s Kindergarten class

“At the beginning of the year, everything I do is about transition,” reflected Jenny Bond, Kindergarten teacher. The Kindergarten transition is about supporting children, families and student teachers in feeling a sense of “belonging, autonomy and competence.” Jenny uses this goal to guide her teaching style, including the language she uses, the books she reads and how she structures drop-off in the beginning of the year. One of Jenny’s main objectives is to ensure that each child feels she or he has a place in the new classroom community, and a primary way she does this is to be very intentional about how she utilizes the children’s names.  On the first days of school, the children see their names in print in many places in the classroom: on their cubbies, at their table seat and at their ‘spot’ on the gathering rug. In addition, Jenny greets them by name several times each day: as they come to school, during morning meeting and as she works with them throughout the day. Jenny makes this practice visible to her student teachers through teaching team discussions prior to the school year and through modeling on the floor.

Being a part of these transitions, both as witnesses and participants, offers a chance for creating relationships and allowing a deeper understanding of our role as guides. Thinking about the beginning-of-school transition can help us as practitioners have a greater understanding and respect for how transitions are a part of life. By exploring how practitioners work with children and teachers in different developmental stages, we can see not only how needs might change as children move from egocentric infants and toddlers to independent elementary students but also how the human need for belonging and a sense of competence remain the same.


Founded in 1926 as the first campus laboratory school west of Chicago, the nationally-recognized Mills College Children’s School provides a model setting for child study and teacher education based on the six core values of the Mills College School of Education. The Children’s School is also a base for the advocacy of best practices and the care and education of young children. Visitors from the Mills community and from around the world come to observe. The Children’s School currently serves 145 children between the ages of five months to ten years old and is the practicum site for 47 student teachers.

Sara Sutherland, MA, is an alumna of the Masters in Education program at Mills. She has been a Head Teacher in the preschool program at the Children’s School since 2007

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September 25, 2014 at 12:32 pm

Teachers For Tomorrow’s Schools Graduation Speakers | Lauren Foos

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We are continuing our series of speeches given at the 2014 graduation of multiple and single subject credential students from the Teacher’s for Tomorrow’s Schools program.

The speech that follows was given by Lauren Foos, who completed a  4+1 multiple subjects credential program with a BA and MA in Education. Lauren was elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society in 2013. She is excited to be starting her first year of teaching 2nd grade at Montevideo Elementary School in San Ramon Valley Unified School District next year!

TTS graduate, Lauren Foos '14

TTS graduate, Lauren Foos ’14

Hello Class of 2014! Congratulations on your exciting day! This is a very exciting day for all of us here, yet it is truly an even more exciting moment for the six of us in the 4+1 program. Hello family, friends, and all the teachers who are here to celebrate with us as well, thank you for all that you have each done to support us in our journey!

It was this time last year, when I graduated as an undergraduate, that I realized how lucky I was to have attended Mills College. I recognized then how fortunate I was to be able to spend an additional year to receive both my teaching credential and Masters in Education at such an amazing school: It was a chance to really appreciate the school, and faculty, I had around me.

Without realizing it, we all fill important places in each other’s lives. It’s that way with the peers who study with you at the Tea Shop or the lounge, the professors who push us to think outside the box, and all the unnamed staff who make the School of Education an unforgettable place.

Remember when, in kindergarten, you were given a tiny Styrofoam cup, some soil, and a seed? You talked about giving the seed plenty of water and sunshine so it would grow.  You learned that from this tiny seed a beautiful plant would emerge: The stem grows upwards towards the sun and the roots grow down, deep, into the ground. And that without the roots, the beautiful plant would be nothing. All of this from one tiny seed.

Consider a tree for a moment. As beautiful as trees are to look at, we don’t see what goes on underground as they grow roots. Trees must develop deep roots in order to grow strong and produce their beauty. But we don’t see the roots. In much the same way, what goes on inside all of us is like the roots of a tree…unseen.

The six of us chose Mills College because it was the perfect planting ground for our actively growing roots. The nurturing, diverse environment protected our fragile optimism while challenging any narrow thought processes we may have been tempted to cling to. We have blossomed and thrived in the rich soil of the Mills School of Education experience for many, some of us many, many, years now.

I think this is one of the greatest strengths of this school. Not only do the students go on to achieve great milestones in their own lives, they never forget their roots and the school that gave them the chance they needed to improve their lives and the lives of everyone around them. It will be painful for each of us to be uprooted and yet our continued growth demands this.

The traditional graduation speech would now urge you, having built strong roots, to fly. But we, as future educators all know that the business of building roots is a glory in itself. The true challenge of growth begins when the formal curriculum ends. It’s easy to stay on top of the new educational philosophies when your teachers assign, what can feel like, 5,000 pages of readings a week.

For example, when we all came together to study for Anna (Richert)’s midterm, there was an energy of excitement as we imagined what innovated teachers we will all be.

And, the six of us, I will never forget the tight bonds we have built throughout the years and this year as we worked together through the academic rigor of writing our individual Master Thesis paper while crafting our unique vision of ourselves as future educators.

The real challenge begins when we are left to our own devices to continually explore a better way to educate our students.  The School of Education did its part by developing the strong roots that will see us forward.

As we leave here today lets make a vow to keep one thing in mind, we as teachers are committed to continually growing the healthy roots the School Of Education has so carefully nurtured.  Thank you.

Written by collegialconnections

July 24, 2014 at 4:48 pm

Posted in Alumni, Reflection, Teachers

Teachers For Tomorrow’s Schools Graduation Speakers | Alessia Cook

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This spring we had some terrific student speakers at the School of Education’s Teachers for Tomorrow’s Schools credential graduation. The speech that follows was given by Alessia Cook, who completed the  multiple subjects credential program and received an award for Reflective and Integrated Teaching Practice. She is excited to be teaching 4th grade at Hesperian Elementary in San Lorenzo Unified next year with a wonderful team of teachers.

Alessia Cook, Multiple Subjects Credential graduate '14

Alessia Cook, Multiple Subjects Credential graduate ’14

My parents always thought I should go into education. Many years ago, when I was freshly out of college, we sat together at the dining room table and I rebuffed my mom’s suggestion. I remember the exact words I used: I told them, laughing, that “I wasn’t ready” to become a teacher. I wanted something else -­‐ I wasn’t sure what -­‐ to happen first. Maybe I resisted because I sensed that they knew about some part of me that I was only just discovering. Ten years later, however, here I am: looking with some trepidation about that first year on my own, but mostly great excitement, toward a career I can’t wait to begin. Turns out they knew me pretty well.

I’ve spent the last week thinking about my experience at Mills, trying to decide what to say tonight. I wondered if there was a way to represent this group of extraordinary people with whom I have shared the journey of the last year, even though we’re all different in any number of ways. So I decided to begin by sharing a few of the things I’ve learned from my colleagues in the last ten months.

I’ve learned when to stop pushing, and that sometimes being too forward can make someone suspicious. That the absence of some of our classmates here tonight speaks to how much more we have to do in order to be truly inclusive and live a social justice stance because there is no neutral. That even though I didn’t feel my own authority when I was 23 and couldn’t imagine holding the responsibility of a classroom, some people seem hold that presence from birth. That most elementary school teachers, other than me, really do have mountains of art supplies in their homes, and probably in their bags right now. That you can live and breathe being a teacher and it doesn’t mean you have to spend all of your time working. That there are games I actually like, like eyeball tag. That there are infinite configurations of insightful, fierce, generous and inquisitive personalities. That my own questioning of how I could have done something better is exactly what I need to keep doing. And to the secondary folks, I’ve learned that even though you still sometimes feel like the cool, older, more rebellious kids who smoke in the parking lot and collectively might have more tattoos and piercings, that you’re still part of the same web. You help all of us question the status quo, and we can’t do any of our work without each other.

This was the year when I learned that one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received could turn out to be a particular student telling me, “That was kinda interesting, I thought it was gonna be boring, but it kind of wasn’t.”

I’ve learned that we all came here for different reasons.

My dad was a career educator, first as a classroom teacher and later as a math-­‐ science program coordinator and teacher of other teachers. He loved his work. He once came home at the end of a day at school, and keep in mind this was about 35 years into his career, and said, without any sense of irony, “I have the best job in the world.” He was the epitome of an enthusiastic lifelong learner. I always knew how admired he was by both students and other teachers, but truthfully I didn’t pay close attention to that when I was growing up. I just loved him because he was my dad.

I didn’t decide to become a teacher until after I lost him three years ago. One of the most difficult parts of the decision to become a teacher was regretting that I had lost the greatest model and mentor I could have hoped for before I even began my career. What has been so extraordinary for me about the community at Mills is that it has fulfilled what is otherwise an incredibly painful gap for me. Our professors, supervisors, and my colleagues have enriched my life and widened my perspective in ways I didn’t know were possible.

When I tell people I’m going into teaching, they often respond with some version of, “Good for you! Thank you. I could never do that job, but we need more good teachers in the world” and to be honest, this response drives me insane. I’ve struggled to figure out exactly why it bothers me, but I think it’s mostly because I don’t consider teaching a sacrifice and I don’t want to be treated like a martyr. I’m becoming a teacher because I want to use my strengths and my interests to do something I truly enjoy. Every time I walk into a new classroom, I can’t wait to get to know the students in there. That is my touchstone and the feeling that I know will sustain me when I face the challenges and moments of self-­‐doubt that are sure to come.

As you can see, I learned a tremendous amount this year. And one of the people who taught me the most was Vicki [LaBoskey]. I learned from her that even without my dad here, there are models of everything I aspire to be as a teacher, mentor, and a human being, and that can include going on a passionate rant in the middle of class and making sure your students know exactly what you value.

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July 9, 2014 at 3:54 pm

Education Tourism in Kuala Pilah | Danielle Strollo

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Rebecca Beasley-Cockroft and Danielle Strollo with a teacher from the school.

Rebecca Beasley-Cockroft and Danielle Strollo with a teacher from the school.

During our recent visit to Malaysia, we spent one great day on a strange historical quest in Kuala Pilah, a town about one hour south of Kuala Lumpur. We went to find the school where my wife’s dad had taught during his three-year stint in the Peace Corps after college from 1964-1968. We didn’t know what we would find when we got there. It was an educational adventure for us, one in which we learned that quintessential lesson of travel: no matter where you go, things are more similar than they are different.

We got there by taking a commuter train to Seremban, then caught a bus to downtown Kuala Pilah. We started by walking around the town, taking pictures of places Tim might have traveled: The main street, with its KFC and Pizza Hut, some of the side streets with the Chinese-owned businesses, and the bus station. Then, armed with our GPS-enabled cell phone, we began the walk along the road up to the school, which was about a mile away.

The security guard at the school’s main gate didn’t speak any English, and after taking our names down on the visitor sheet, let us go without any hassle, hugely different from what we would have experienced in the US, given our heightened fear of kidnappings.

After a few minutes, we began attracting some attention from the students, who approached us and asked us where we were from. “California, United States.” Kind of like saying, “I’ve come from Mars to see you go to school.” What the heck were we doing there, they must have wondered. We tried to explain that Rebecca’s dad had taught there, but we’re not sure it got through.

Ultimately we walked up to the main school building to peer into classrooms, at which point we finally ran into a teacher, Ms. Ying-Ying. She was doing a homework session with some students, but she was gracious enough to find someone to cover for her and take us to the principal’s office. There it was arranged for another teacher to show us around while Ying-Ying finished up with her students.

Our tour guide, whose name eludes me now, showed us all around the school grounds. I took pictures of everything, including some of the curious students, who waved and smiled at us like crazy. Most of these kids had never met Americans, much less young American women, before, and were excited, shy, and happy to practice some English. Apparently the first thing people in Malaysia learn to say in English is, “Where are you from?”, because every single one of the kids we encountered asked us.

The teacher explained that this school was now a regional, or “state,” sports academy, essentially a boarding school where boys and girls who excelled at sports from around the area were sent to develop their skills. The best students were then plucked for the national sports academies, where they did the same thing, and the teams they were on then played the state schools. So the state schools lost their best players, only to have to play them later — pretty unfair.

The students had to qualify, so they didn’t have to pay, but with the kids’ schedule and emphasis on sports, the teachers lamented that the kids didn’t really learn anything but sports. They went to class during the day, did sports practice in the early afternoon, and then they were basically too tired to do homework. So the teachers would assign homework and then do it with the students, since they didn’t have time to really work on school outside of school. Not much of an opportunity to let that class work sink in.

We met a second teacher, who was a teacher/soccer coach, and he explained about the problems the school had. And here’s where the similarities to the American school system really started to become uncanny.

“These are kids who really need more time in school, and less time playing sports,” he complained, “since they aren’t the best students to begin with. But we put them in a school that emphasizes sport, so they don’t become better students.” Emphasizing sports over education? No way.

Another problem — and stop me if you’ve heard this one — is that schools are underfunded in general, and in the sports schools like theirs, the money that does come is for better sports equipment. The stadium and the field was brand new, and gorgeous, while the classrooms that we saw were the exact same ones that Rebecca’s dad had taught classes in 50 years ago. On top of that, the Malaysian equivalent of the Department of Education keeps coming up with new theories on how to make students do better, and keeps changing the curriculum and increasing the number of standardized tests to make it “better.” Without consulting the practitioners, who, despite years of experience, are regarded not as professionals, but as babysitters. Teaching isn’t respected in Malaysia, he told us; teachers are underpaid and disregarded by the government. No kidding!

The teacher/coach saved us a bus ride and drove us back to Seremban, since he lived out there and was headed back for a break before soccer practice. He talked to us the whole way about education, and teaching, and how he loved it despite the obstacles. “The students that remember you the most were your worst students. The good ones go off and forget their teachers, become lawyers or doctors, someone important.” Of course he was really looking forward to a time when he didn’t have to work anymore, since it was getting harder each year to deal with the bureaucracy of Education.

So we had to travel thousands of miles to hear the same story we hear from all of the teachers we know. As they say in Asia, “Same same, but different.” It’s too bad that our worst habits are becoming the norm all around the world, while some countries like Korea and Finland, countries that invest in education, see test scores and literacy rising. I wish I could say that things are looking up, but I don’t know that it’s going to get better in the next however many years before we have kids. So I guess we’ll be forced to supplement school with stimulating activities at home, the way our parents did for us.

One thing is for sure, though: we will be traveling with our kids, so they get the same kind of quality experience we had in Kuala Pilah. That’s how they’ll learn that even though people may look and sound different, that really, we’re all the same and deal with the same kinds of problems. After all, that’s the most important thing for someone to learn anyway.


Danielle Strollo is free-lance writer, traveler, and development officer. She is currently looking for a good job in the Bay Area.

Written by collegialconnections

June 18, 2014 at 1:22 pm

Those Who Can, Teach | Julia Beers

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Julia Beers is a Mills Alumna who currently completed her credential program in Teaching through Mill School of Education MEET Program.

Julia Beers is an educator, alumna and completed her teaching credential at Mills College in the School of Education MEET Program. She is currently working on her Master’s.

“Teachers must recognize in a conscious and deliberate manner their own worth as an interpretive community” (Fecho 1993).

Somehow, the pervasive and ridiculous saying, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach,” had escaped my ears until I was in my mid-twenties. I remember hearing it in a movie while working on my credential at Mills and couldn’t believe that this quote could possibly be so widespread. I knew at that point, from first hand experience, what a complex art it is to be a teacher, how deeply one has to know one’s subject, students, and self in order to teach well. This quote seemed profoundly mistaken to me.

Over the years, as I have talked about my work with friends and family, I have been struck by their common misconceptions of what teachers do. When I arrive at a dinner date with friends and say, “Sorry I’m late. I was at work until six today,” I am often met with inquiring gazes, and sometimes asked, “so…what do you all afternoon? Don’t the kids leave at 2:15?” I am continually surprised that many people do not know a teacher’s job goes on long after the bell rings. And so I bring my busy and yet unseen afternoon into the light, telling them about the thought and preparation that goes into each lesson, my assessment of student work, collaboration with colleagues, and communication with parents. Amidst these daily components of my job, I may also share about the unexpected challenges that have arisen on that particular day, working to get Medical set up for a family, keeping a student late to re-teach an important math concept, or gathering classroom materials for a newly admitted student. In telling these stories of what it truly means to be a teacher, I can do my part to slowly debunk the oppressive and mistaken portrait of the teacher that has been drawn in our minds.

So often teachers are overworked and have little extra time to be involved in the creation and critique of education discourse. It is a marginalization cycle that perpetuates itself: policy-makers are removed from the classroom and so do not seek to change the circumstances that teachers face, and since the public is not familiar with the reality of teaching, many continue to believe stories about the lazy or ignorant teacher. Seeing themselves reflected as such in the public eye, teachers often internalize these erroneous concepts, and then remain further silenced. If we are to break out of this system of teacher marginalization, we as teachers must recognize our own worth. Our voices must extend beyond our classroom walls, as we confer and deliberate within teacher communities. We must share our stories with others and develop a language for challenging misconceptions when we hear them. By bringing our expertise into the formal and informal arenas of education discourse, the meaningful, difficult, and activist work that we engage in daily can be more publicly seen and understood.


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May 28, 2014 at 2:33 pm

Perspectives from an ESL student | Zubin Hu

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ImageZubin is a student in Teachers for Tomorrow’s Schools. For two different classes, Zubin was required to select a student (ELD student preferred, but not required) from the classroom where he student-teaches. Zubin wrote the piece below in response to case studies he did in those classes. He chose the topic because he had not seen anyone mention anything on it and wanted others to be aware of the differences between the terms.


Some definitions (from

ELL/ EL- English Language Learners/ English Learners

ELD- English Language Development is a system of instruction focused on teaching ELLs to use English proficiently to communicate for various purposes in four language domains – speaking, listening, reading, and writing. ELD is also a class period that all students placed in the ESL Program are assigned.  It has its own curriculum and state standards.

ELP- English Language Proficiency are levels of English language learners’ fluency based on their stage of language acquisition and characterized by specific student language behaviors in reading, writing, listening, and speaking. The levels are determined by State ELPA Test. Level 1 is Beginner.  Level 2 is Early-Intermediate. Level 3 is Intermediate.  Level 4 is Early- Advanced.  Level 5 is Advanced.

ELPA- English Language Proficiency Assessment is the annual state exam for assessing English learners’ growth in English proficiency

ESL- English as a Second Language

To many people, the phrases “ESL”, “EL”, “ELL”, and “ELD” are the same thing. However, to me, they are different. I am an ESL student, and “ESL” is the only one among the four definitions listed above that I’d love to be identified as. Being an ESL student implies that I can speak another language and may have language barrier. On the other hand, being an EL, ELL, or ELD basically means one has language barrier.

For my case studies on language, I found two students whose home languages are not English. However, they both refused to participate. I felt that they both were anxious about English being their second language. One student even lied. He told me that he was born in Berkeley, and he only speaks English at home. I mentioned this to my roommate, who is also an ESL student, and he said that when he was in school, he didn’t want people know that he was in the ELD program because he was worried people would look down on him. When I asked him if he wanted to be identified as an ESL student, he said that would be better for him because he would have the privilege of speaking two languages.

I understand that some other people don’t want to be identified with any of the four terms above. However, we, as educators, should affirm students’ identities and encourage them be proud.

One day while I was talking to my case study student, she reminded me that teachers often tell ELD students to write the definitions in their native languages. I followed this method myself when I was in school and wrote the Chinese translation of the words I didn’t know. I used to read each article at least three times. The first time reading the article, I basically just looked for the words I didn’t understand and wrote down the definition. The second time reading the article, I just tried to make sense of the article. If I found any definition didn’t make sense, I would go back to the dictionary and find an alternative. The third time reading the article, I was trying to understand it. My reading speed was slow. I spent much more time than other students to understand an article. After doing this for a year, I got tired of it and found that it wasn’t very helpful. English is such a complicated language because so many words have more than one meaning. Also, if a word is used in different context, the definition may be different. I then stopped writing the definition for every word that I didn’t know. Instead, I just tried to figure out the meaning through the context. If I still really had no idea what a word meant, then I look it up in the dictionary and choose the one that makes the most sense.

To many ESL students, especially in high school level, math and science are their favorite subjects. Maybe favorite is not very accurate, and I should use easier-to-catch-up-to instead. We come in with some understanding of those subjects. All we need is just to translate them into English and make sense of them.

Math class was very important to me in high school. I built my confidence in speaking and working with native speakers. Even though I didn’t understand much of the language, I did understand the examples or content. When I got home, I just focused on the vocabulary. Eventually, I was able to understand most of the things talked about in class. This approach may be limited to only a small number of individuals, but this definitely works in some cases including my own. I believe that vocabulary instruction is essential to effective math and science instruction. It not only includes teaching math or science specific terms such as “mean” or “percent,” but also includes understanding the difference between the mathematical or scientific definition of a word and other definitions of that word.

How ELL students feel about themselves is directly affected by the education policies put in place for English Language Learners.  Education policy makers set strict English language standards and push for ESL students to acquire English language proficiency at a rapid pace.  This urgent focus on language acquisition creates anxiety for ELL/ESL students.  Are there any influences we, as educators, bring to ELLs?  If teachers are not sensitive to or responsive toward ELLs’ cultural identities, ELL students can be pushed further toward the fringes of the classroom until they ultimately withdraw from the learning process.  If teachers focus so much energy on mainstreaming ESL students, they will place little or no value on students’ ability to speak two languages.  Acknowledging and affirming all students’ cultural identities in the classroom strengthens individuals’ sense of value, and their academic performance in the long run.  Teachers who understand and support the cultural norms of diverse learners help create a nurturing environment for those students, and can then encourage those students to feel more comfortable in taking the risks that can lead to so much learning and development.  By incorporating the wealth of students’ cultural backgrounds into the curriculum educators can advance the learning of all students, meeting the policy makers’ goals and fulfilling our obligations to all of our students.  The question, then remains: how do we build a curriculum that integrates multicultural backgrounds on an ongoing basis, and not just as a one-time multicultural event or activity?

Written by collegialconnections

February 5, 2014 at 1:14 pm

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